What's next? Moving on after a wild Open week

By Rex HoggardJuly 22, 2015, 11:45 am

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Wandering away from the Old Course with the echoes of Monday’s frenzied finale still ringing across the links, thoughts inevitably turn to what’s next.

With the PGA Tour firmly headed into the closing loop of this season, there are still plenty of questions that remain.

From the couch to contention?

Rory McIlroy watched the claret jug, his claret jug after last year’s victory at Royal Liverpool, passed to Zach Johnson from the confines of his Northern Ireland home after being recently sidelined by an ankle injury.

McIlroy, who did retain the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, answered the call earlier this season when Jordan Spieth won the Masters with triumphs of his own at the WGC-Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship.

A member of McIlroy’s management team said last week that there is still no timetable for his return to competition, with the PGA Championship looking more and more doubtful. Whenever that comeback commences, the pressure will be on to fend off an increasingly impressive challenge from the 21-year-old would-be king.

More history to be made?

As Spieth’s birdie attempt at the 72nd hole on Monday slipped past the hole, the gravity of the moment still hadn’t seemed to sink in.

Vying to become just the second player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season, Spieth finished a stroke out of the playoff that was won by Johnson, yet even in defeat young Jordan was impressive.

“None of the historical element came into my head whatsoever,” he said.

With the hunt for the single-season Grand Slam now over, Spieth can turn his attention to another slice of history at the PGA Championship where he will be looking to become just the third player to win three majors in the same season.

Will the troubling trend continue?

In the messy aftermath of the 2010 PGA Championship, an embarrassment of mistakes that was defined by Dustin Johnson’s misadventure on the 72nd hole, Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler bristled at the notion that things didn’t go the way they should have.

“It’s what should have happened,” he said of the penalty Johnson endured on the last hole after grounding his club in a hazard that looked nothing like a hazard.

One can only imagine what will happen in three weeks when the golf world descends on Wisconsin for the year’s final major considering what has already been an eventful major championship season.

From the crusty “browns” at Chambers Bay that made putting a lottery to the meteorological nightmare that was last week’s Open Championship, there is every chance the PGA is an adventure both on and off the golf course.

What is the price of progress?

Following his second consecutive missed cut at a major Tiger Woods talked of missed opportunities and spin rates, of all things.

“I'm just not scoring,” Woods said on Saturday at St. Andrews. “Every opportunity I have to make a key putt or hit an iron shot in there stiff with a short iron and get some momentum going, I haven't done that.”

It was a familiar refrain for Woods, who talked of progress and being more than the sum of his scorecard, but cautious optimism does little to mitigate the fact that he is quickly closing in on another lost season.

At 258th in the world, Woods has just two events remaining, next week’s Quicken Loans National and the PGA Championship, to turn things around (he’s currently not qualified for the FedEx Cup Playoffs). Otherwise it will be time to offer a new narrative – wait until next season.

How thick could the Teflon be?

Following Dustin Johnson’s high-wire loss to Spieth at last month’s U.S. Open, the collective thought became, “how much can one man endure?”

The bomber appeared to offer a spirited answer when he opened his week on the Old Course with rounds of 65-69, but just as quickly, he backtracked with closing cards of 75.

This one, more so than his misadventure on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay and at the 2010 U.S. Open and PGA, was a genuine surprise. Sunday pressure is understandable, expected even. But when Sunday is little more than a bridge to the final round like it was at St. Andrews we’ve come to expect more from DJ.

Closing the gap?

There have been plenty of missed opportunities for Jason Day but this one seemed to sting more than the others.

After beginning the final round at the Open tied for the lead, the Australian launched his bid to get off the major schneid with birdies on two of his first six holes on Monday. But he played the rest of the way in even par and watched his playoff bid come up painfully short at the last.

“I've been working very hard to try and accomplish my first major, and you know, it's a little frustrating with how it finished,” he said. “I don't know, it's just something that I really want to do. I really want to have that shot at immortality. It'll soon come my way.”

If winning majors were easy we wouldn’t assign so much importance to them, but for Day it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.

What will Phil do next?

Like Woods, Phil Mickelson’s season has been a study in frustration born from Lefty’s inability to score. At St. Andrews there were glimpses of progress, highlighted by an early Monday run up the leaderboard.

“I got rid of one of the areas of weakness, which was a big slice off the tee,” Mickelson said.

Of course, the big hook didn’t work all that well on Monday when he deposited his tee shot at the 17th hole onto an Old Course Hotel balcony to close with a 69 and tie for 20th place.

Mickelson still has time. He finished 12th at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA, sixth in ’04 and he saved his season with a runner-up showing last year at the PGA. But as it always is with the southpaw, past performances and good intentions do little to focus the looking glass.

Can the transition be made from Presidential pushovers to Cup contenders?

Presidents Cup captain Nick Price has tried, however unsuccessfully, to tinker with the format to create what he and other Internationals consider a more level playing field, but the Tour has largely balked leaving many to wonder if October’s matches will be another boat race for the U.S. side.

The Internationals are 1-1-8 in the biennial event and in danger of becoming the Generals to the American Globetrotters.

Day and Hideki Matsuyama would appear to be the new anchors for Price’s team, but without a dramatic makeover the event seems poised to be another exhibition.

Who will be this year’s FedEx Cup spoiler?

As brilliant as Spieth has been this year, it’s time to start thinking about who will clip him at the wire in September at East Lake for the FedEx Cup.

Last year, fresh off his own back-to-back major victories, McIlroy began the post-season with a commanding lead in the season-long race only to watch the $10 million payout go to Billy Horschel. In 2013, it was Henrik Stenson who caught fire at the right time to beat Woods, who would go on to win the Player of the Year Award.

Spieth’s FedEx Cup lead is commanding, he’s over 1,800 points clear of No. 2 Jimmy Walker, but as we’ve learned, the Tour’s playoff experiment rarely goes according to plan.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.